Judge Willis Reports

If you are a UK astronomer or particle physicist, then two possible positions pertain. (a) You have been in a coma. (b) You are perfectly well aware that a Parliamentary Select Committee has been digging into the recent Science Budget Allocations. Paul Crowther has all sorts of details, and my own reports of the hearings are here, here, and here . Well … they have finally completed their deliberations and published a report. If you were expecting a whitewash, think again. Its pure Semtex.

Quotes from the summary :

“… in merging two Research Councils, one research community has been saddled with the debt of another, despite assurances from the Government that STFC would be formed without any legacy issues.”

“In STFC itself, we found weaknesses in its peer review system, its communications and its management.”

“We recommend that STFC wait for the results of the Wakeham review of physics before implementing the cuts proposed in the Delivery Plan and that it use this time to consult with its stakeholders”

“…substantial and urgent changes need to be made to the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give the Council the leadership it desperately needs.”

Wow. As you would expect, STFC have issued a firm riposte which you will find at the STFC website. I am trying to decide whether the right comparison is Geoff Boycott or Edith Piaf …

81 Responses to Judge Willis Reports

  1. onlooker says:

    STFC Chief Executive gave “inaccurate, unconvincing and unclear” answers to a Select Committee of the House of Commons.

    Wow.

  2. Dave Carter says:

    The report is good, and echoes many of the things which many of us have been saying. At this stage I believe that we should focus on the first of our quotes, rather than immediately looking at heads to roll (which is the way that the press have been pushing interviewees this morning). For instance, their recommendation 8 (legacy Issues, on page 48) concludes:

    “We believe that the Government should ensure that its original commitment to leave no legacy funding issues from previous Research Councils is honoured.”

    It may even be worth planting the seen in the minds of VCs that they should highlight this recommendation in their input to Wakeham.

    Recommendation 17 on the grants line is not as strong as I would like, it deplores tha fact that STFC have played down the effect of grant cuts, but stops short of recommending that these cuts be reversed. Perhaps they feel the ghost of Haldane leaning over their shoulder here.

    Just before recommendation 22 is a Freudian typo (regulation instead of reputation. But recommendation 22 is another important one that we should highlight.

    There are elsewhere warm words for Daresbury and ATC.

    Overall I believe that this report gives the astronomy community the chance to pull together that the Particle Physics community has (and always has), and work to towards a positive outcome, rather than sniping at each other.

  3. Dave Carter says:

    Aargh an accidental smiley! also I don’t know how to do quotes in italics, or maybe you can’t in replies

  4. Dave Carter says:

    Gosh my typing isn’t very good. The important one is that the second line of my long reply should read “At this stage I believe that we should focus on the first of your quotes…”

  5. andyxl says:

    Dave – I agree completely that the first quote is the most important. Although STFC senior management have made significant strategic, tactical, and psycho-political errors, I actually have considerable sympathy for them. Ex-PPARC leaders were screwed by the merger.

  6. KOMdodo17 says:

    Some other important snippets, buried deeper:

    “The ongoing saga over Gemini raises questions about the competence of STFC’s communications.” (No $hit, Sherlock).

    “We find Professor Mason’s explanation for the withdrawal of funding from ground-based solar-terrestrial physics (STP) facilities to be inaccurate, unconvincing and unacceptable.”

    “The Delivery Plan also has implications for STFC’s laboratories. Job losses across STFC will be particularly damaging at the Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC) in Edinburgh, since it is a relatively small centre. Of the current 100 staff, 40 are expected to lose their jobs in the next few months.”
    Which they constrasted nicely with:
    “STFC’s plans call for a staff cut at RAL of approximately 150 out of 1,500 staff. This is a significantly lower percentage of the staff to be lost compared with ATC or Daresbury.”
    After saying earlier that:
    “…the former PPARC community is being penalised by the merger with CCLRC. This is a situation that the Government had promised would not come about.”
    And:
    “We remain concerned that the former PPARC community has been saddled with a £75 million (at 2006/07 prices) funding deficit derived from CCLRC to meet the additional running costs of Diamond and ISIS TS2, despite assurances from the Government that STFC would be formed without any legacy issues.”

    On Daresbury:
    “We urge STFC either to commit fully to science at Daresbury, which would include confirmation of at least one large national facility and a concrete programme of future activity and scientific excellence… or to make an honest assessment of, and statement on, the future of Daresbury as a technology and business park.”
    Given the £80M budget problem, this scares me.

    Finally, concerning his reviews of STFC research (which make the Select Committee report seem tame – grab a copy today! – oh, I forgot, you can’t): “We are at a loss to understand how Professor Mason could think that secretive reviews would have anything other than a divisive effect on the community and undermine confidence in any of his future decisions.

    On the whole, it’s clear that the current management team cannot continue. So they probably will. They just won’t tell us.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Before anyone gets too excited about sticking Keith’s head on a pike, it is worth asking who his replacement would be. If I were the Government, I would look at the now-documented inability of academics to manage this organization, and go for someone with more civil service type experience, who is more in tune with the knowledge transfer imperative, such as someone from senior management at RAL or Daresbury. Perhaps not a cause for celebration amongst astronomers.

  8. KOMdodo17 says:

    Professor Merrifield: Indeed – good grief, we might end up with a non-academic in charge! Someone with experience of managing a large organisation, and communicating – we can’t have that! What would the VCs say?!

    I’m looking forward to the new-look meek/mild Professor Keith Mason. Perhaps he could serenade us – does he play piano? Or the banjo? Easier to picture him in the Phil Collins + Cadbury’s ad, but with bones and skulls for sticks and drums.

  9. Dave Carter says:

    So according to the BBC website, John Denham said this:

    “I think the issue now is actually moving on from that and the STFC showing over the next couple of months it has the ability to address the issues raised in the report.”

    No it doesn’t John, specifically it does not have the ability to address recommendation 8. Only extra funding will give it that ability. This is the issue we have to push again and again, whenever asked, and by whom, not who goes and who stays, interesting though that may be as a game.

  10. Conflicted of Edinburgh says:

    As a Grants Panel member, I’m particularly interested in this little gem…

    —-
    94. We were also told during the course of this inquiry that, upon becoming of Chief
    Executive of STFC, Professor Mason had commissioned a series of reviews of in-house research to inform him on whether STFC was “doing the right research” and whether it was “world level” or “second rate”.133 These reports were not published or shared with the staff, as he explained:
    One of the criticisms which had been levelled in the past is that such reviews had
    involved internal staff and internal managers who had a vested interest to maintain
    the research of their group. So I deliberately set this up with completely independent
    panels, with international representation, and we had I think 11 panels covering the
    whole of the research council, so quite a major exercise, so they are peer review
    panels in the sense they are independent experts who are not related to the research
    council. I told them, “You can be as honest with me as you like because this report is
    coming to me to advise me, it is not going to be shared with my managers or staff, so
    you can tell me what you really think.” I said to them at the outset, “Please tell me
    exactly what you think so I am informed, so I know how to take this forward, and be
    honest.” So that is the reason for the so-called confidentiality around these reports,
    they are reports to me and not shared with my managers, so that I can get a really
    bona fide gold-standard opinion as to whether the research going on in these groups
    is truly world class which we should continue or whether it is just sucking resources
    away from things that universities might be able to do better.134

    Science Budget Allocations 35
    95. We are at a loss to understand how Professor Mason could think that secretive
    reviews would have anything other than a divisive effect on the community and
    undermine confidence in any of his future decisions.

    I couldn’t possibly comment as to my opinions of this here, but if you’d like a secret discussion I’ll tell you precisely what I think.

  11. Kav says:

    “I actually have considerable sympathy for them”

    And that shows me that you are a better man than I.

    I have no sympathy any more; they had the chance to make their case to the committee and clearly failed in spectacular fashion.

    Yes they were put in a terribly difficult situation; DIUS clearly expected too much from them but then they made it worse, and worse and worse.

    When I heard it implied that we were kicking up a fuss because we were scared of change… Well.

    Sorry, no sympathy at all.

  12. andyxl says:

    Conflicted : those comments referred to the in-house research reviews, not the peer review system. I was on one those panels myself, and served as honorably as I could, following the instructions of those commissioning me; but the committee’s comments are correct; the unnecessary confidentiality was bound to demoralise the in-house staff concerned. Anyhoo .. happy to take you up sometime on the offer.

    Kav : You could see all this as a classical tragedy. The fall is determined both by the characters intrinsic flaws. and the historical dilemma they find themselves in.

    KOMdodo : luckily there have been perfectly good examples in the past of senior academics who have made a good job of running quangos. There is a classic dilemma all big businesses face – you need someone with real business skills, but you also need someone who knows the business. Now – who would you oick as Apple CEO – Steve Jobs or John Scully ? (Not allowed to answer “Woz please”.)

  13. Michael Merrifield says:

    KOMdodo17 — I think I failed to make my point very clearly. I have no problem witrh the chief executive of STFC being a non-academc, and can see the clear benefits of having someone selected for their management skills rather than their scientific track record. I am, however, deeply nervous of the possibility that that someone might be selected from RAL or Daresbury with the associated mind set (just as I have heard those from Government labs expressing their concerns at being part of an organization managed primarily by people from a uinversity background).

  14. Kav says:

    How about a chief executive who is an academic from a distinguished department but with familiarity of a government lab due to close and harmonious proximity?

    Such an individual would not be connected with either RAL or Daresbury so that no one has to worry about the bubbling feud that appears to exist between the two sites.

    What do you think Andy? Fancy a move down south? 😉

  15. Michael Merrifield says:

    Now you’ve really got me scared…

  16. CC says:

    If a system is overconstrained (e.g. inherited commitments which exceed the budget and directives from on high to sort it out within STFC and in a too-short time) then catastrophic outcomes are inevitable.
    Keith was set an impossible task and now seems to be lined up as scapegoat.
    The community has done itself no favours by replacing reasoned argument with hysterical outbursts of lobbying in the press – I fully expect that precedent to be regretted in future when STFC research priorities are set by telephone poll during a Sunday evening light entertainment show.
    The Haldane Principle has always been slightly ephemeral – I don’t actually see anything wrong with Governments setting strategic prioriities – that is what they are elected for in our society. What Haldane does is allow Ministers to deny responsibility for their decisions. Similarly, Research Councils need a scheme to avoid just divisding the budget equally between all proposals; taking a vote of the community currently in receipt of grants is not intellectually defensible, in my view – so I don’t see a problem with some top-down strategy to replace the current bottom-up strategy.

  17. Michael Merrifield says:

    > Keith was set an impossible task and now seems to be lined up as scapegoat.

    This would certainly seem to be the case, and I do have significant sympathy for him. I also agree that clapometer peer review is not much use for anything: I am still at a loss to understand how, for example, the current review panels are supposed to make use of the fact that Jodrell and UKIRT were the most effective facilities in mobilizing their constituents to respond to the consultation.

    However, I cannot see the impossibility of the task as entirely absolving Keith from responsibility. There seem to me to be three possibilities:

    1. He was unaware of the full extent of the funding problems when he took on the job, which would be a fairly stupid thing to do, as surely you would make sure you understood the budget that you were taking on before accepting the job. If that was the case, then he is accountable for failing to do his homework on behalf of the organisation he agreed to lead.

    2. He took on the job knowing it was impossible but thinking he could muddle through with the existing budget, which would be really stupid, and again places the responsibility on his shoulders.

    3. He took on the job knowing about the problem but with a promise that it would be fixed, but failed to get the promise written sufficiently in stone, so that the fix was not implemented. This seems to me more credible (after all, why would the Goverment set up a failing organisation?), but still leaves him ultimately responsible for failing to appropriately protect the organisation under his stewardship.

  18. David says:

    Keith was given a hard task, this is clear, but not an impossible one. His job is to run the STFC. He earns a fair chunk of corn for this, and nobody expects it to be a sinecure.

    However, he screwed up. He didn’t consult when he should have been all ears. His people skills are lamentable for someone with over 2000 staff. He muddled over Gemini when he should have provided clarity. The list goes on and you all know it as well as I do.

    Worst of all, in my view, is his ongoing attmpts to rewrite events in a favourable light. We never said that we intended to withdraw from Gemini? Bollocks ye didnae! Read yer ane press releases. We’ve reorganised STFC’s management structure? Aye, well the select committee “do not have any confidence that rearranging the responsibilities of existing staff will solve STFC’s problems”. The grant cuts aren’t so bad? Again, the committee are “dismayed that STFC has been attempting to play down the cuts”.

    Keith Mason as CEO of STFC is “inaccurate, unconvincing and unclear” and in light of the “serious questions” about his role and performance, he should resign.

  19. Dave Carter says:

    All I can do is say again that we should concentrate on the issues which affect us, rather than on personnel. The committee have given us an open goal with some of their recommendations. Lets not stand around kicking the corner flags.

  20. D.Squat says:

    DC: do you seriously think that personnel at the top of STFC do not affect us, as you imply?? The select committee report directly blames said personnel for making an already bad situation catastrophically worse. We are only in some kind of holding position currently because of the fuss from the bottom up. Much irreversible damage has already been done. Therefore both areas have to be addressed as a matter of urgency to move forward.

  21. Dave Carter says:

    Maybe I should have said the issues which we might be able to affect.

  22. KOMbat17 says:

    Despite the bluster of a few professors a few months ago, we appear to have no-one prepared to call a spade a spade and demand the resignation of a team that has failed us spectacularly and repeatedly (and despite their despotic attempts to re-write history – thank you, David, for your careful cross-matching of comments – I bet you’re not a lily-livered academic. A fresh face at the top would give the govt an ideal opportunity to implement the recommendations of a report which is refreshingly thoughtful, accurate and free of STFC spin.

  23. Michael Merrifield says:

    If you know me, then you will know that I don’t shy away from referring to garden tools by their proper names. However, I would nonetheless argue against demanding anyone’s resignation. If I were the Secretary of State, the one thing I would not do in the face of such demands is sack anyone: it would set such a completely disastrous precedent that even if I had been about to sack them I would have to keep them on.

    The views of the community are sufficiently well known, even to the Secretary of State, that there is no benefit in shrilly voicing them, but plenty of potential for a counterproductive outcome.

    As for the Government wanting a fresh face at the top, I would imagine that is probably true in the slightly longer term, but right now they want him to stay standing there with a big target painted on his chest, to conveniently take the heat from the community and the media for a while longer.

  24. Dave Carter says:

    Also remember that there is a bit of a vacuum at the top of the science tree in DIUS, O’Nions has retired, and his replacement doesn’t start until September. I would think that the ministers will want to make any changes after that, not before.

    In the meantime keep reminding them of the recommendations which can do some real good, such as recommendations 8, 11, 24 and 25. Particularly 8.

    If it comes down to whether you want someone’s head on a plate or more money in the STFC budget, I know where my vote goes.

  25. Dan says:

    Getting down to the Edinburgh-centric details and particularly the idea of transferring the UK ATC to the University of Edinburgh. To start with, they give us the strangely inaccurate statement “First, and most importantly, ATC is based at and works closely with the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.” Presumably they meant to say something along the lines of it works closely with the Institute for Astronomy. That slip is no big deal really – and of little interest to anyone but pendants of observatory history (like er, me). Except that having established their slightly wobbly grasp of the situation, they go on to make such a confident statement about how well the UK ATC would fare within the university. I really dont know how well UK ATC would fare in the UoE, but I was pretty surprised that the committee would want to offer such a firm message on such a specific sensitive issue, in the context of the complex investigation they were carrying out. It’s just about the only concrete “recommendation” they make on STFC’s plans (as distinct from on DIUS funding or on how STFC runs its business) that they make. I’m equally surprised this hasn’t generated any reaction on this blog.

  26. KOMbat17 says:

    Fair points, but people’s lives have been severely and adversely affected by the regrettable events these twerps have presided over and I’d like to see some accountability. I’d be surprised if Wakeham receives the same publicity as the Select Committee report, or is more careful or less afraid to grasp nettles. This govt reacts strongly to media coverage, invents policy on the hoof, so although I accept your comments on timing (re: O’Nions’ replacement), I continue to believe that resignation is an appropriate response and that we should be ready to accept it, if offered, then forgive and move on.

    Did anyone else think yesterday’s press release revealed Council more as the CEO’s poodle than his master?

  27. David says:

    I understand, Dave (Carter), what you’re saying, and you are correct that it is vital to pursue those recommendations right noow. However, there are two points I’d like to make:

    1) I do not believe that Keith retains sufficient credibility with anyone to achieve a successful outcome from the committee’s recommendations.

    2) I am an STFC employee, and I do not want the head of the organisation for which I work to be a shambling mound of ineptitude. Working for such people is a nightmare.

    As for the Council being the CEO’s poodle, I don’t know, but I do feel that Council’s support of the STFC senior management should be viewed in the light of the fact that 30% of the Council members are also STFC senior managers.

  28. andyxl says:

    Kav/Mike : re moving down South… hey why not ? Hand me that poisoned chalice right now and let me drink ! Err. No thanks. But this will be a consistent thought amongst senior astronomers. Its a bit like the closing episodes of the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Anybody who actually wants to be President can’t be allowed to.

    Dan : re the ATC thing … my reading of this is that being aware that there was any sort of discussion between STFC and the University of Edinburgh let them off the hook .. they could just tick that box, thinking “oh, jolly good, someone’s got that bit in hand, we can forget about it. Now, about Daresbury …”. Pretty similar for many of the commenters on this blog I guess. “ATC ? Oh yes. Absolutely. Now, about the grants cut …”

    I am ok with this for now. Although at first we manned the barricades and got our MP on the blower and all that, it became clear that we would never outgun Daresbury and Jodrell Bank in the “nation scandalised !” press bonanza. So as soon as the current crisis is over, we can maybe think about the future of the ATC in a sane and calm manner.

  29. Watcher says:

    Dave, The Council statement was drafted following a closed session of Council at which the Executive members were not present.

  30. Kris says:

    I find it remarkable that everyone falls for the sucker punch of a few well crafted (personal) soundbites in the review. This is the same committee that recently spent months reviewing space and said “all is well”. Ha! Let’s face it the committee are only as good as the stuff they are presented with and everyone was up for knocking STFC. Hey – easy target. But the fact remains the first half of the report says STFC were short-changed but they never concluded “so casn they have the full allocation back”. We let the Committee off the hock by playing their games and not challenging them to deliver a message to Govt (NOT the Exec) that asks for this to be refunded. Where are the academic protests into Government today at local level?

    And as to the suggestion that Mason should have gone in to the numbers before he joined. Have you seen such organisations function? Perhaps he is expected to bring in his his own accountant at the interview… I suspect the concept of vested interests is simply in the eye of the beholder… where are the comments from those science communities that would do well in the review? Strangly silent… keeping heads down perhaps?

    Meanwhile we have a crucial ESA Minsiterial in 6 months and need to get STFC to focus attention on this if we want a half decent programme to emerge. Perhaps some in the community do not. However I fear more “UK shooting themselves in the foot” approaching.

  31. Dave Carter says:

    I disagree Kris, I think that recommendation 8 says quite clearly “so can they have their full allocation back”. Which is why I think this should be our focus.

  32. Michael Merrifield says:

    > And as to the suggestion that Mason should have gone in to the numbers before he joined.
    > Have you seen such organisations function? Perhaps he is expected to bring in his his own
    > accountant at the interview…

    Absolutely. Well, maybe not to the interview, but you would expect someone offered the job of Chief Executive of any organization should take great care in hunting down all the skeletons before accepting the job. It isn’t even as if the ultimate culprits were unpredictable. That’s why I tend to believe the scenario in which Keith was aware of the potential problems and had the promise that they would be solved, but failed to nail down the guarantee.

  33. Kris says:

    OK Dave – good point. Pity it was lost in at point 8 rather than the “juicy stuff” for media land later in the report.

  34. Tony says:

    I think people need to cut Keith some slack. I know him and have worked with him – I know he cares about astronomy and I would expect him to do what he thought was right. Maybe he thought about taking a raft of input and expected that’d just lead to everyone fighting their own corner (which is pretty much what happened) so got special input on the in-house concerns and a panel to look at the external stuff then sliced out what he thought would deliver the government’s agenda and leave the UK in a strong position for the future. Maybe it could have been done better but I’m not sure that many others, given the same instructions and the same budget would have approached the situation better. He knows that what he did was what he thought was right so figures why bother to apologise; he’ll just take each situation as it stands and try to get stuff working from there. But then, as Andy knows, my diplomacy skills are probably on a par with Keith’s. Keith’s real mistake was possibly to think that he’d get any support when the sh*t hit the fan, either from the government or from those who helped him come up with the strategy. He may not be the perfect person to cut out a new strategy for UK physics & astronomy but, from my limited experience, there aren’t many I’d put in front of him.

  35. Sarah says:

    Also knowing and having worked with Keith I would say Tony’s assessment is the one that is most consistent with my experience, and I too can’t think of many, if any, who would have done a better job in a situation like this. Perhaps if everybody stopped bitching and tried to work with him we might salvage something positive from this mess.

    Kris’s point about the ESA Ministerial is an excellent one; I also fear more ‘UK shooting themselves in the foot’ approaching unless we wise up and start pulling together as a community.

  36. andyxl says:

    I have known Keith for years and I agree strongly with Tony and Sarah that his commitment to the job is in no doubt, and he has clearly tried to play a tough Whitehall game. Hell, do any of us know we could have beaten the DIUS / Harwell / Treasury system ? I don’t blame Keith (or Richard or Jim) for the big picture problem. They were stitched up like kippers I reckon. Of course, handling of Gemini, ILC, grant cuts, peer review etc .. something else. But lets not mix up those issues, as Dave keeps reminding us.

    We are not Keith’s employers, and calling for his resignation is just daft as well as vaguely unpleasant. What will be be will be. Clearly we we have to focus on (a) next CSR (b) the legacy debt. Whether we do that with Keith or with somebody else while Keith does his garden is a second order question.

  37. A Professor says:

    I guess everyone has their own experience of Keith. I well remember him arguing with all sincerity about six or seven years ago that no worthwhile astronomy had been done from the ground in the previous decade (SCAP meeting at UCL, if I remember rightly). Not exactly the open-minded breadth of perspective that one might hope for in a CEO.

    Could anyone else have done a better job in this situation? Perhaps not, but then perhaps they wouldn’t have let us get into this situation in the first place.

  38. Michael Merrifield says:

    > We are not Keith’s employers, and calling for his resignation is
    > just daft as well as vaguely unpleasant

    hear hear!

    > Clearly we we have to focus on (a) next CSR

    Forgive me for repeating myself, Andy, but there isn’t going to be a next CSR. There will be a general election before 2011. It seems more than likely (I have quite a good track record as a seer, although of the rather pointless Cassandra-esque variety) that we will have a shiny new Conservative administration when the next CSR falls due, who will be wholly wrapped up in delivering their exciting freshly-minted manifesto. I would therefore suggest that we forget all about CSRs, and start working on Tory science policy.

  39. D.Squat says:

    Like many younger faculty and postdoc or PhD level astronomers, I don’t personally know Keith so I just have the appalling track record since in office to go on, as highlighted by this independent report. Sorry, he is in too important a job to say ‘oh he means well, best interests at heart’ and so on. I’m sure he can find another position better suited to him. The report highlights the many ways in which he has made a difficult situation far worse on a number of important measures. Or do those that know him reject the findings of the report?

    It is quite sensible to point this out and act upon it as well as addressing Wakeham and longer term concerns. He has had many occasions to take corrective action and has insistently refused to change tack on the important issues – the emphasis on science & innovation campuses, headroom for aspirational projects at a time of genuine crisis for current world leading projects (without which UK leadership of future aspirational projects is lost) and of course cuts to postdoctoral grants. Not to mention the demostrably bad communications both with the community and our international partners.

    The response to these genuine concerns has been defensive and dominated by spin of the worst kind. The belated and rushed consultation process we now have resulted only from bottom up pressure. Why didn’t STFC think to carry out a facilities survey among users as has also now happened in the community? Ultimately, why should our world ranking science be let down in this way? The least we can expect is that somebody better suited to the CEO role takes over. We as a community of course have to make sure we get our messages across to Wakeham and more widely to Government and the wider body politic.

  40. Phil Uttley says:

    Hmm, I think we could have let them off with the fact we got shafted by govt etc, but the idea that they are trying their best for us doesn’t fit with the observation that they are seemingly actively spinning against us (e.g. ‘we were had by the Gemini board’, postdoc numbers are reduced only 10%, there are 40% more academics etc.). That has made a lot of people very angry. Now, maybe the apparent spinning isn’t malicious, but then at the very least it’s incompetence. If the STFC leadership had come out at the start and said ‘yes, we didn’t get enough money to cover our inherited liabilities from the PPARC/CCLRC merger’ then most of the community would have probably backed them, but they came out telling govt and the media that things were rosy, and when our own research council says that can you then blame govt for thinking that the astro and PP communities are a bunch of whingers?

    As to where to go from here I’m not sure, but I sympathise with Mike’s suggestion that the STFC leadership is a very convenient lightning conductor for the government, and maybe we should focus our energies on the govt and getting back the missing 75 million to cover the CCLRC liabilities which astro&PP seem to be paying for. At the same time, the sniping would stop pretty quickly if there was change at the top…but it would be nice to know who we would get instead, it’s probably this uncertainty that stops more strident calls for resignations. Wakeham may well suggest some restructuring of the funding councils anyway, so maybe the dilemma will go away then.

  41. […] select committee report on STFC but this is far better covered than I can manage by others eg. the e-astronomer, here and in links […]

  42. Anon says:

    Sounds like not all physicists agree with our campaign:

    http://www.researchresearch.com/news.cfm?pagename=newsStory&lang=EN&type=default&elementID=85579&nosearch=true

    I hope this not mean they will use wakeham to brief against us to get our funding reduced and theirs increased

  43. andyxl says:

    Indeed. But they are understandably cross and nervous. I have had a number of fascinating conversations on this with Diamond and ISIS users in my own department over the last few days. If I get time later today I will write a post on this…

  44. Michael Merrifield says:

    It does seem a bizarre line of argument:

    There is a big asymmetry of funding in STFC: one side has rolling grants while the other has to apply to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for funding. When it cuts the running time of ISIS, the STFC is affecting the work of other research councils that fund scientists using that facility.

    There is, indeed, an asymmetry, which was pointed out from before the outset of STFC, but the asymmetry is that there is no way of tensioning the costs of EPSRC-area exploitation against the costs of EPSRC-area facilities. Any over-runs in the building or operating of their facilities ends up being paid for from astronomy and particle physics grants, thus throwing our programme out of balance as well as theirs. I am sure we would all be delighted if those in the EPSRC area were to restore the symmetry by sharing in the cuts to exploitation grants to help fund the unbudgeted costs of their facilities.

  45. Watcher says:

    Mike. You have no evidence that facility operations are being paid for by astronomy and particle physics grants.

  46. Michael Merrifield says:

    Really? I have the Select Committee report which states unequivocally that the source of the funding shortfall is that facility operations were not adequately budgeted, and I have the information on cuts that were imposed on astronomy and particle physics grants due to this funding shortfall. Maybe the step of logic is too great for you to infer that this implies that facility operations are being paid for by our grants, or maybe you want to get into some tedious debate about the ten pound notes not having “reserved for grants” printed on them, but no reasonable person would dispute that this is evidence supporting the view that grant funding has been diverted to support facilities.

    So, demonstrably you are wrong: I do have evidence. You could dispute that evidence by reason, or present some evidence to the contrary, but instead you just make false unsubstantiated statements.

    A little ironic, given that not so long ago you were blustering

    A common feature on these pages in the tendency by some to say that something is so when what they mean is that they think it is so. Thinking something to be true does not make it true.

  47. Watcher says:

    Mike. If I look at Paul Crowther’s analysis of STFC’s finances (http://pacrowther.staff.shef.ac.uk/finances.html ) I find that the net cut to PPAN areas (the programme cut minus the build-back of new programme) is £33m over the CSR. By any measure this is very close to the effective volume reduction that would have been faced by PPARC as a result of a flat cash CSR settlement. I see no evidence in Paul’s analysis for the assertion that Grants are being cut to fund facilities and I have no reason to doubt Paul’s analysis.

  48. Paul Crowther says:

    Just for the record, this `analysis’ is based on STFC’s own figures (including FoI documents), and obviously EXCLUDES the disputed annual, recurrent shortfall of £25M in the cost of operating ex-CCLRC kit which was highlighted by the IUSS committee report. Both Mike and Watcher may be right… there may have been CCLRC legacy issues, and grants may have still been hacked for PPARC in CSR07.

  49. Watcher says:

    Paul. I think you will find that those operations costs are covered by the remaining £47m of net cuts that come from infrastructure, staff and operations in the labs.

  50. onlooker says:

    I dont get the funding aspects of the staff at STFC facilities. It was originally announced that some 500 people were to be fired, and this saving would go towards paying for the Diamond and ISIS-2 running costs. But we now are told that these people will not be fired. Where is the money to keep paying them coming from?

  51. Michael Merrifield says:

    Watcher: I also have no reason to doubt Paul’s analysis, but have little confidence in the STFC-massaged numbers on which they are based. Personally, I have more faith in the conclusions drawn by the Select Committee, which placed the shortfall squarely at the door of non-budgeting of CCLRC operations, and in my knowledge of cuts to our grants that resulted from this shortfall. That was the evidence I was relying upon, and why you were lying by baldly stating that I did not have any such evidence.

    If you meant “I do not believe your evidence,” then you should have said so. Though perhaps it might have been more intelligent to ask what evidence I was relying on before deciding you didn’t believe it. But then that would imply that you were interested in (indeed, capable of) rational debate.

  52. Paul Crowther says:

    The STFC FoI documents claim £25M over CSR07 is needed to `restore facilities operations’ to Diamond and ISIS, which looks to have genuinely been found from savings elsewhere on the CCLRC side, but this is still £75M – £25M = £50M lower than the NAO figures, is it not? Apparently full operations are not being achieved in 2008/09 (explaining the 7 May article in RF), so there is no doubt that both the ex-PPARC and ex-CCLRC communities are hurting. Surely we can all agree that the lack of cash has been the source of the whole mess, panicking STFC’s management into some hasty, regrettable decisions. Keith Mason would not be under pressure right now had the settlement been more generous. Still, I do wonder why STFC fared so badly.

  53. Black Dog says:

    Who watches The Watcher ;o)
    Reference a new CEO – Sven is looking for a new job I believe

  54. John Peacock says:

    I think Mike Merrifield is being unfair to the watcher in accusing him/her of a deliberate untruth. My current suspicion is that much of the debate about the CCLRC hangover is missing the point. It is a fact that we have constant near-cash, and such a settlement would have hurt PPARC had it still existed. In this sense, ex-CCLRC is not the problem. But it is striking to see in the select committee report that only STFC has flat near-cash: all the other councils are getting increases of 4% to 8% p.a.; even a 4% rise would give 80M over the CSR. and we would not have had a problem.

    But STFC’s total settlement is not unusual, so it follows that we have an atypically large non-cash allocation. Why is this? Non-cash is, I think, to pay for depreciation of assets: it’s not real money at all, and it’s a dirty Treasury trick to claim it as new science funding. It only goes up if we have new assets, so what are these? Well, certainly STFC is now responsible for 250M of Diamond, plus something for ISIS2 – shall we say 300M total? I think depreciation is over 20 years, so this is costing 45M over 3 years. If our non-cash allocation had not risen, we would have had to take this out of near-cash – but in effect DIUS has done it for us.

    Thus, my current position is that PPAN science is being hurt by Diamond and ISIS2, not necessarily because we are subsidising the overrun on their operations, but because the flat near-cash has been in large part induced by the depreciation costs of these facilities. The finger of blame ends up pointing in the same direction, but the mechanism is more subtle.

    I’d be interested if the watcher has any comments on this interpretation.

  55. Watcher says:

    John. Well yes, the problem is flat cash and that would have been a problem for PPARC. The question then is why flat cash? The answer is a combination of fec and non-cash requirement. PPARC’s non-cash requirement was never very big cos it never had huge assets.

  56. Paul Crowther says:

    John has highlighted a subtle aspect of Treasury sneakery, but I still don’t see how Watcher’s fEC and non-cash arguments could have conspired to yield just an 8% increase for STFC’s near-cash budget between 2007/08 to 2010/11 versus between 12% and 26% for all the other RC’s – see Figure 1 in Judge Willis’ report.

    O’Nions couldn’t very easily sell much of STFC’s non-facility activity to the Treasury, which would naturally explain why the ‘applied’ (= directly useful) themes embraced by EPSRC achieved 18.3%, but for STFC to do much, much worse than the 12% uplift achieved by Arts+Humanities needs further explanation, and is something the IUSS ctte failed to discover.

    I could speculate that O’Nions felt that astro/PP – especially astro – needed bringing down a notch or two, having overexpanded in recent years.. the astro community grew by 40%(*) between 2005 and 2007 according to KOM’s testimony on page 55-56 from Volume II of the report. Still, the Watcher has reminded us that merely believing something to be true doesn’t necessarily make it true, so i’m open to any alternative explanations…

    *The actual increase is a rather less spectacular 4%

  57. Watcher says:

    On the other hand you could note that other Councils got essentially just fec (the larger settlements reflecting their larger fec requirement) and that EPSRC have recently announced volume cuts to responsive grants. So while one could blame non-cash and hence ex-CCLRC facilities for STFC’s woes, one could equally blame fec or the substantial additional funds for MRC. All these things come out of the same pot.

  58. Black Dog says:

    Black Dog approves of Andy’s personalised Icons – very cool
    Even though his looks like Nazi runic symbol :o)

  59. Dave Carter says:

    This is all very interesting, and I am sure that John has pinpointed a very large contributor to the problem, but the point to me is that recommendation 8 of the Select Committee report is that government should address the legacy problem that they, not us, have identified. I don’t see how it is in anyone’s interest to either a) deny that this legacy problem exists, or b) get embroiled in arguments about the details of this identified legacy problem. Through our MPs or whatever other channels we have, we should ask the government to address it. Also the bit about not taking precipitate action until after Wakeham reports.

  60. D.Squat says:

    We absolutely have to fight the case against the legacy debt and postponement of current facility and grant cancellation plans pending Wakeham and proper consultation. BUT we as a community still have a big problem with the way in which our case has been denied rather than promoted to Government by the very body supposed to be representing us. Our international reputation is damaged with the potential for severe damage and the basic thrust of STFC policy decisions is still opaque and counter to the interests (both current and future) of most of the community, i.e. the general emphasis on future aspirational projects in which the UK is often just another or a minor player compared to areas in which we currently lead but will not be able to continue to lead into the future if current facility is further compromised. We will lose the world leading expertise which takes many years to accumulate and will shape the next generation of projects in key areas.

    Our only betters, at least as measured by citations etc internationally, are the US where the community shapes research funding in a more open, bottom-up and accountable way than is the case here. Even on matters of international negotiations with partners, we see very recent examples below STFC committee/council level demonstrating a much better ability to compromise and imaginatively reshape plans as needed than the ones supposed to be doing this on our behalf. Reshuffling a few posts at STFC is unlikely to solve this – we need a much better lead from the top and wider and deeper committees and sub committees with full consultation with the whole community. We also need the most respected members of our community with the widest experience to be occupying these senior positions.

  61. […] if we were all of Physics; and fear that our whingeing is going to damage us all. A comment on this earlier post gave a link to a Research Fortnight piece. Not everybody has access, so here is a […]

  62. Michael Merrifield says:

    John:

    I think Mike Merrifield is being unfair to the watcher in accusing him/her of a deliberate untruth.

    The only deliberate untruth of which I am accusing Watcher is his bald unsubstantiated statement that

    Mike. You have no evidence that facility operations are being paid for by astronomy and particle physics grants.

    This is demonstrably an untruth (or a lie, as it is more commonly known), because I clearly do have evidence to that effect: the published Select Committee report places the origin of the shortfall clearly with the operations of ISIS and Diamond, and the shortfall has had well-documented effects on astronomy grants.

    Whether that evidence is reliable or not is open to intelligent discussion, but to baldly state that I have no evidence is akin to sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “la,la,la, I’m not listening” (something that STFC are proving quite adept at, in fact).

    My irritation was compounded by the fact that Watcher previously had lectured us with

    A common feature on these pages in the tendency by some to say that something is so when what they mean is that they think it is so. Thinking something to be true does not make it true.

    While being patronizing in this way is annoying enough, it is far more annoying when combined with the hypcrisy of subsequently doing exactly that himself.

  63. John Peacock says:

    Watcher: Your reply makes it fairly clear you agree with my argument. We need to know why STFC has flat cash – and I now feel that the strongest contribution to this is the depreciation costs of Diamond & ISIS2. I wish we’d been told this clearly in November and been spared months of puzzlement.

    Mike: Let’s be careful here. The Select Committee pointed out the unarguable fact that STFC is saddled with the implications of CCLRC’s underbudgeting for the running costs of the PALS facilities. But it is conceivable that the pain of this is falling entirely on the PALS side (as would be just). At the moment, there is no spreadsheet in the public domain that allows you and me to judge this (I think there should be).

    But even if PALS is (are?) paying for all the extra running costs, this doesn’t mean that Diamond & ISIS2 aren’t the problem: if we didn’t have the extra non-cash hit of paying for their depreciation, the near-cash line would be higher, and we’d be happier.

  64. David says:

    Michael,

    I would like to draw your attention to the Matt cartoon in today’s Telegraph, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/00670/matt_670506a.gif

    😉

    David

    PS: testing…

  65. David says:

    Michael,

    I would like to draw your attention to the Matt cartoon in today’s Telegraph, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/00670/matt_670506a.gif

    😉

    David

  66. Watcher says:

    John. Your line of argument may well be right, up to the point where you make the assumption that without the non-cash requirement, the near cash allocation would have been higher. Only DIUS could answer or know this.

  67. andyxl says:

    Watcher : quite.

  68. Watcher says:

    Mike. I have no intention of trading insults. So lets debate instead. I know that within the constaints of a flat cash settlement PPAN science is not being cut to bail out ex-CCLRC facilities. John then conjectures that had PPARC and CCLRC not merged, PPARC would have got a higher CSR settlment. While I have a little more information than you do on the former statement, I accept that you might not believe it. But you can’t pove either statement one way or the other (that is you have no evidence).

    Now rather than playing word games it would be useful to try to come up with evidence that ex-PPARC science has suffered disproportionately in the CSR (compared with other science). I don’t have such evidence but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If you do then we should send it to DIUS or Wakeham or Mason, none of whom, I believe, has their fingers in there ears.

  69. Michael Merrifield says:

    John: what the Select Committee said was

    We remain concerned that the former PPARC community has been saddled with a
    £75 million (at 2006/07 prices) funding deficit derived from CCLRC to meet the
    additional running costs of Diamond and ISIS TS2, despite assurances from the
    Government that STFC would be formed without any legacy issues. We conclude that
    the combined budget of PPARC and CCLRC was never going to be sufficient for STFC
    to manage Diamond, ISIS TS2, the other large facilities and all the PPARC research
    programmes. This was noted by the National Audit Office in January 2007, and
    therefore the Government should have known and should have acted upon it. The fact
    that it did not has had unfortunate consequences. We believe that the Government
    should ensure that its original commitment to leave no legacy funding issues from the
    previous Councils is honoured.

    Since all the pain we are currently suffering, including cuts to astronomy grants, is to deal with an £80M shortfall in the over-all budget, it is surely undeniably follows that if the budget had been augmented by £75M to deal with the issue of unbudgeted CCLRC running costs then we would not be having to make these cuts today. Unless the Select Committee and the National Audit Office were mistaken in their analysis, which is quite possible, but in the absence of other independent data I put more faith in these organizations thatn Watcher and his friends.

  70. Dave Carter says:

    Watcher, is paragraph 34 of the Select Committee report not sufficient evidence? Particularly its last sentence.

  71. Michael Merrifield says:

    Watcher: there’s not much point in even trading insults if you are under the delusion that “you cannot prove either statement one way or the other” means the same as “you have no evidence.” The first statement is debatable. The second is demonstrably a lie: there is certainly evidence. The only question is whether it proves the case.

    And that isn’t playing word games. I just don’t like people who make nasty accusations ridiculing others’ positions by baldly stating that they have no evidence, when deomonstrably they do. Particularly not patronizing hypocrites who enjoy preaching about the others’ tendencies to make unsupported assertions.

  72. John Peacock says:

    Mike: The trouble is that, if an extra 75M had been forthcoming, there would be a reasonable case (= they need it) to give it entirely to the PALS side (the counterargument might be that they only need it through gross incompetence in planning, so do they deserve to be baled out?). I think the problem is certainly mainly CCLRC hangover, but possibly the 75M is a red herring.

    Watcher: You say we can’t know what PPARC would have got. Fair enough. That’s why I’m concentrating on understanding why the STFC settlement is out of line with all other councils. Having identified (I think) the main cause, it’s clear that removing that would make more money available for ex-PPARC science unless you think there is some good reason why DIUS might have decided STFC deserved a much smaller overall rise than all other councils. I think the burden of proof is on you to come up with such an argument.

  73. Watcher says:

    Dave. See para 28. While para 34 points to flat cash and hence reduced volume for STFC para 28 points out that this is true for all Councils with the exception of MRC.

  74. Michael Merrifield says:

    It is a fair question. One might even surmise that those in charge of CCLRC allowed this situation to persist because they had assumed that the Government would not want the new research council to fall flat on its face at the first accounting, and would therefore provide exactly such funding to bale them out. However, as that nice Mr Watcher bleats between loud choruses of “la, la, la, I’m not listening,” none of us is in any position to prove what went on.

    In any case, given that the problem in the over-all budget was £80M, an injection of an extra £75M in the top-line CSR settlement to address this issue would have solved the problem, without having to get into the question of how the money was ultimately hypothecated between former-CCLRC and former-PPARC areas.

  75. Dave Carter says:

    Watcher, I read (still in paragraph 34) “…all the other research councils have marked increases in near-cash over CSR07 while STFC does not”. While this is not directly a comparison with CSR04, what Figure 1 shows is flat or slowly declining near-cash, I think what paragraph 28 implies is that other research councils have to fund feC out of their increases, whereas STFC has declining volume because of inflation, even before you account for feC.

  76. Watcher says:

    John. I don’t know what was in the mind of DIUS. Sorry but there are some things I can’t see and so conjecture about what PPARC would have got is just that, conjecture. What we do know is that STFC got essentially flat cash and that’s not enough to maintain volume. That means pain and that pain is spread across STFC as Andy has pointed out.

  77. Watcher says:

    Dave. No the statement that STFC got essentially flat cash refers to the situation after fec is taken into account .

  78. John Peacock says:

    Watcher: You are the one indulging in conjecture. Every research council has a significant increase in its headline budget. I think this provides good evidence to argue that STFC would have got a rise even if it had not been saddled with a huge non-cash burden. Therefore, without this burden, we can be pretty sure that STFC would have had a sustantial near-cash increase, based on the consistent picture of what DIUS did.

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